B&V’s Best of 2021: Our Favorite New LPs & Vault/Live Releases

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“Time is a jet plane, it moves too fast…” – Bob Dylan, “You’re A Big Girl Now”

This year, like many before it, seemed to both fly by and at the same time drag on. I looked up and suddenly realized it’s the end of the year… it snuck up on me again. Traditionally for me, this time of year, once we’ve cleared the big Christmas holiday, always seems to bring with it a time of reflection. With New Year’s Eve – a holiday I’ve always considered Amateur Night (and I’m a fan of St. Patrick’s Day, speaking of amateurs) – comes a sense that time is passing and in some cases, slipping away. At least the introspection has stopped me from all the Holiday gorging myself. I’ve been wandering around the house with two full cheeks of food like a chipmunk for about a week now, but I digress. What was it Jackson Browne sang, “I’ve been aware of the time going by, they say in the end it’s the wink of an eye.” Maybe it’s all like Siddhartha, the Herman Hesse book, and we’re all just sitting by the river, watching it flow…always changing but yet seemingly the same. It appears I may be a little too into the reflection this year.

There seems to be a pervasive attitude among a lot of people that 2021 was just “2020 Redux.” I would argue with that. This year I was able to return to seeing my beloved Chiefs play at Arrowhead. 2020 was the first year in quite a few that I attended zero home games. Unless we all pull together progress will remain slow… I was able to travel a little this year – some in the service of my corporate masters, which I was actually looking forward to as a traveling sales guy – and some of it personal, mostly to points west to see my daughter. Hopefully you guys all got to see loved ones this year as well and didn’t have to resort to “virtual” roadtrips. Most importantly I got to see a couple of concerts. The Rock Chick surprised me with tickets to see Joan Jett and Cheap Trick (what a double-bill!) and we went out to Colorado to see 311. I can’t tell you how healing it is to spend an evening with like-minded strangers, standing in the dark in front of a stage listening to rock n roll music.

I have to say, I thought 2021 was much, much better than 2020. Although it wasn’t without tragedy. We lost a legend this year in Rolling Stones’ drummer Charlie Watts. I’m still not over that one. The man played with such an effortlessness. He made what he did look easy and believe me it wasn’t. He was the heartbeat of the Rolling Stones and one has to wonder if they’ll get over that loss. Although they did tour this year and you’d have to think those guys are in that “high risk” demographic. When I think about 2021 in general, but especially in terms of music, I thought it was a good year but I expected a great year. I thought with everybody off the road in 2020 we’d see a lot more new music than we got this year. We didn’t get that new Guns N Roses LP, although we got a few “new” singles, “Absurd” and “Hard Skool.” We didn’t get a new Stones album.

Despite those complaints, what we did get this year in terms of new music was really strong. We had new stuff from young bands like Dirty Honey and Greta Van Fleet. We had a number of new albums from veteran artists that epitomize why we founded B&V in the first place. The archives were opened up in 2021. It was a great year for live stuff and box sets. This year was a big anniversary year for many albums, especially those from 1971. As usual, I decided to end 2021 on a high note by listing out our favorite or “best of” list of new albums and in conjunction our favorite live/archival/vault releases. We did something similar last year, and the years prior. Per usual, these are listed in chronological order so please don’t consider this a ranking from 1 to 10.

B&V 2021 Best New Albums

  1. Cheap Trick, In Another WorldWhen this came out, much like 2021 itself, I was a little let down vs their prior LP, We’re All Alright! Expectations are a tricky thing. The more I listened to this album the more I dug it, much like Pearl Jam’s Gigaton last year. This is a solid, ass kicking rock album. I got to see these guys in concert and they played “The Summer Looks Good On You” and it inspired me to go back and start listening to this LP again. These guys have been delivering so consistently for so long it’s easy to overlook a great rocker like this one… “Stop Waking Me Up” should have been on my playlist ‘Songs About Sleeping.’
  2. Black Keys, Delta KreamI’ve been on these guys bandwagon since Rubber Factory. I was completely taken by surprise that they put out an album of blues covers highlighting the Mississippi Hill Country blues made famous by Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside. “Crawling Kingsnake” was the highlight but there are ton of great, bluesy tracks here.
  3. Billy F. Gibbons, HardwareThe longtime ZZTop front man released his third solo LP and it’s the most “ZZTop-y” album he’s delivered. He does what he does best whether its dirty riff rock like “My Lucky Card” or bluesy ballads like “Vagabond Man.” This may be his best solo LP yet. The final track, “Desert High” is one of the best things he’s done.
  4. Jackson Browne, Downhill From EverywhereJackson just keeps putting out great, late period albums. He’s still writing wonderful songs like “Still Searching For Something” or the great ballad, “A Little Too Soon To Tell,” with a dash of politics, “Until Justice Is Real.” He’s an important voice and this was a treat of an album.
  5. David Crosby, For Free – Crosby is in the midst of a great late career renaissance. I got on the bandwagon on Sky Trails, but For Free is another great record. He collaborates with Micheal McDonald on “River Rise” and Donald Fagan on “Rodriguez For The Night,” which is my favorite track… because we’d all “sell our soul to be Rodriguez for a night…”
  6. Lindsey Buckingham, Lindsey Buckingham – I was a little overwhelmed at work when this gem came out and didn’t write about it. This was the album that got Buckingham fired from Fleetwood Mac when he asked for more time to promote it vs go on tour with the band. There are some of Lindsey’s best solo tracks on this album, the best of which is “I Don’t Mind.” “On The Wrong Side,” “Blue Light,” and “Santa Rosa” are all great songs. My only complaint is Lindsey needs to invite some other musicians into the studio to make the sound a little fuller vs playing everything himself.
  7. Chrissie Hynde, Standing In The Doorway: Chrissie Hynde Sings Bob DylanI’m shocked at how many great cover albums came out this year. Hynde, known for her pugnacious rock n roll with the Pretenders, strips it down to acoustic guitar and piano here for an inspired set of covers, mostly from Dylan’s later career. Mesmerizing album.
  8. Robert Plant & Alison Krauss, Raise The RoofIt took over a decade but Plant/Krauss finally delivered this stunning sequel to Raising Sand, highlighting the beautiful alchemy created by their intertwined voices. Pure harmonic sorcery.
  9. Sting, The Bridge – It is so utterly satisfying to hear an artist who I had, sadly, left for dead come back to life. “If It’s Love” is the best pop song he’s done in ages. I keep listening to this LP, I can’t stop. A true late career gem from Sting.
  10. Neil Young & Crazy Horse, Barn – Neil Young reunites with Crazy Horse for the second LP in a row and really delivers on Barn. From hushed acoustic tracks (“Song of the Seasons”) to full on garage-rock tracks (“Human Race”), this is the best thing he’s done in a while and I loved the last LP, Colorado.

B&V 2021 Best Vault/Archive or Live Albums

  1. Neil Young, Archive Vol 2 – An amazing chronicle of Young’s career from 1972 to 1976, ‘The Ditch Trilogy’ years. A must have for any Young fan.
  2. Black Crowes, Shake Your Money Maker 30th Anniversary – This might be my favorite box set of the year. The bonus tracks are great, but the full concert included is worth the price of admission.
  3. Fleetwood Mac, Live – Deluxe – The original Fleetwood Mac Live album but with twice the music. I’ve always felt the original double-LP, live record was underrated.
  4. Mick Fleetwood & Friends, A Celebration of Peter Green – Speaking of Fleetwood Mac, drummer Mick Fleetwood put together a great tribute for Fleetwood Mac founder Peter Green that plays like a great blues jam at a hot blues club. Steven Tyler, Billy Gibbons and Kirk Hammett all show up… The only sad part is Green was a no show… and passed shortly afterward.
  5. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Deja Vu 50th Anniversary – Revisiting the landmark 1971 album with a bunch of demo’s and the seeds of many of the tracks that ended up on their solo records. I was surprised how much I loved every bit of this.
  6. The White Stripes, White Blood Cells – Deluxe – The album that broke them far and wide… plus a concert from that tour which is icing on the cake.
  7. George Harrison, All Things Must Pass – 50th Anniversary – Another 50th anniversary… George’s magnum opus complete with great demo’s, both acoustic and fleshed out with the band. Truly a glimpse into the creative process that was ATMP. I really dig the acoustic demo’s where he lays out the mostly all fully realized tracks. He really was stifled in the Beatles.
  8. Bob Dylan, Springtime In New YorkA box set from Dylan’s oft-overlooked early 80s during the recording of the LPs Shot Of Love, Infidels and Empire Burlesque which proves that this period needs another listen.
  9. The Beatles, Let It Be – Super DeluxeA bunch of outtakes from one of my favorite Beatles’ albums. The Super Deluxe really fleshes the album out. A must for any Beatles fan. I can’t keep humming and air-guitaring to “Get Back.”
  10. The Rolling Stones, Tattoo You – 40th Anniversary Tattoo You was assembled from outtakes from earlier recording sessions, so they returned to that formula to add 9 more bonus tracks. There’s a Super Deluxe edition that has a full concert from the tour. This was an iconic album for all of us who were too young and missed them in the 60s… This was a special box.
  11. Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band, The Legendary 1979 No Nukes Concert – I thought I’d throw in a bonus album, this concert document that I didn’t have time to write about. Most of the E Street Band’s legendary 1978 concerts in support of Darkness On The Edge of Town were three hours long… This abbreviated set for the No Nukes show was only an hour and a half and it’s like the band, who had been in the studio laboring over The River, sound like they’ve been shot out of a cannon. It’s chalk full of hits. It’s perfect for a casual fan who can’t groove for three hours.

That’s our top of the pops for 2021. I hope you guys enjoyed this music as much as we did here in the B&V labs. I hope everybody has a safe and happy New Year’s. I’ll be doing what I do every year. We’ll head out to dinner with friends and home and asleep by probably 10. Like I said, it’s Amateur Night. Even when I was young and faced the hope of some fabulous, un-forseen New Year’s Eve liaison… it never panned out, but I digress. I, for one, am looking forward to 2022. I hope we’ll see you here at B&V next year! Thanks to all of you who have joined and contributed to our little musical dialogue!

Cheers and again, Happy New Year!

Billy F Gibbons Latest, ‘Hardware’ – A Straight Up Rocker From ZZ Top’s Front Man

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I’ve been bouncing all around musically this week. I’ve been deeply into the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young Deja Vu: 50th Anniversary Edition for a couple of weeks now and that continued this week. I found myself going from that to Dylan’s Another Self Portrait (1969-1971): The Bootleg Series Vol 10 for no other reason than I saw it was the anniversary of the original Self Portrait recently… I seemed to be stuck in a late 1969, early 1970 groove…maybe I should get a leather fringe jacket and some beads. To shake it up I bounced to the Black Crowes’ Warpaint. That southern rock got me thinking about ZZ Top and that’s when it hit me that Billy F. Gibbons (or just Billy Gibbons as I’ve always known him) had just put out a new solo record, Hardware. The next thing I knew I was cranking that and of course, his original band, ZZ Top. I went back and listened to ZZ’s La Futura. I can’t believe it’s been almost 10 years since that album was released (in 2012). That was a great, Rick Rubin-produced comeback album. Rubin always seems to find a way to get a band to do what they do best. “I Gotsta Get Paid” is a true ZZ Top highlight. I need to do one of my “Lookback” posts about that one… 

My love of ZZ Top goes back as far as my love of rock n roll. As I’ve shared often on this site, my first LP purchase was the Stones’ Some Girls. After that, I was hooked, my life forever changed. I was a music collector. It was late ’78, maybe early ’79. There was so much rock and roll to choose from…I was so far behind. I wanted to collect all of this great music released in the 60s and 70s but like anybody I was drawn to what was then current. I remember I only owned maybe half a dozen records and my dad asking me, “Do you really need all of these albums?” Famously a smart ass, I asked my father in response, “You realize there’s different music on each album, right?” We didn’t talk much after that until I was 30 but I digress. I remember my burgeoning record collection consisted of: The Stones’ Some Girls, Van Halen, Supertramp’s Breakfast In America (which I eventually traded to my brother for Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours), Steve Miller Band’s Greatest Hits 1974-1978, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon (which was a must have album, if just as a badge of “coolness”), Led Zeppelin (I still have a soft spot for that debut) and believe it or not – the Blues Brothers, Briefcase Full of Blues. My friend’s “hot” sister, Stacy owned that record and since she was a few years older I figured it was cool. Actually that record is how I started to realize that most the bands and music I was into was based on the blues. So good on you Messrs. Belushi and Aykroyd. 

In 1979, ZZ Top had been away on hiatus. The last ZZ Top LP, at the time, had been Tejas in 1976. They had been gone for three years, a lifetime back then. My friend Brewster always said the hiatus was because bass player Dusty Hill had been taking off his cowboy boots and a revolver had tumbled out and shot him in the leg. Having seen the documentary ‘ZZ Top: That Little Ol’ Band From Texas,’ I’m not sure that Brewster story is true, funny though it is… As an aside, I did see ZZ Top open up for the Stones in Houston a couple of years later. The show was in the Astrodome. This biker I ended up standing next to, on the floor in the crush in front of the stage, said to me after ZZ Top had played and the roadies were sweeping off the stage, “The roadies have to sweep up all the mud that came off those guys’ cowboy boots,” like they’d been rustling cattle or something. Again, I’m not sure that’s true either but I’m getting distracted again… So many ZZ Top stories. Having been dormant since 1976, I’m not sure that I was aware that all those great southern rock, boogie blues tunes were the same band, let alone knew it was ZZ Top. I’d heard tracks like “Tush,” and “La Grange” but I’m not sure I’d put it together those were all from the same band… I was truly a novice. Hey, I always thought Genesis’ “Misunderstanding” was Journey with Gregg Rollie on lead vocals. That wasn’t cleared up for me until college. 

So, in 1979 I started hearing this great new song on KY102, the local rock station, “I Thank You.” I dug the music but the lyrics sounded like they were slyly vulgar, which was a plus. Beyond thanking a woman for loving him… this line pops up, “You didn’t have to squeeze it but you did, but you did, but you did, and I thank you.” That line had me thinking there was more to this story… there were just too many “but you did(s)” in the song. It was only later that I found out it was a cover tune written in part by Isaac Hayes. I dug the song and I was interested in this ZZ Top, but with only 6 or 7 albums to my name and a salary derived from mowing lawns, I had to be very careful about which LPs I purchased. I quickly determined the new LP was called Deguello, but I still hesitated. I had this 3 song rule… if I heard three tracks I dug, I bought the record. That was my ROI, three songs. Sigh. After hearing “Cheap Sunglasses” I was almost ready to jump in… Finally I heard “I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide,” and that settled it, I had to have this album. I purchased it the next time I could convince my mom to drive me to the mall… Yes, I was still in junior high. Needless to say, that album started a life long connection between ZZ Top and myself. Gibbons had spent his 3 years away absorbing punk rock and psychedelic influences and it paid off. Although even I’ll admit that it was hit and miss after Eliminator all the way to La Futura. I still consider Antenna a great record. 

I had actually heard that ZZ Top was working on a new band LP. I had heard drummer Frank Beard and the aforementioned, Brewster slandered, bass player Dusty Hill were excited about going back into the studio. I was down for another ZZ Top LP after the great La Futura. So I was a bit surprise that guitarist/vocalist Billy Gibbons had decided to do another solo record. Maybe it was a COVID issue. I remember back in 2000, being in Denver at a Rush cover-band show in a bar up in the mountains. Geddy Lee had just put out his first and only solo record. A friend of mine said to me, “Who needs a Geddy Lee solo record?” Harsh, indeed. Musicians likely get tired of working with the same guys and need a break – especially in the case of someone like Gibbons whose band has been together 50+ years. Sometimes they have material that’s just too personal or they just wanna record different types of music. I never fault a guy for going solo. I will admit, Billy’s first solo LP, 2015’s Latin-tinged Perfectamundo was not my cup of tea. I loved his 2018 LP, The Big Bad BluesI saw that album described as “covers heavy” but there were a lot of Gibbons’ originals. His wife even wrote a tune, “Missin’ Yo Kissin’.” Say what you want about the Rock Chick, she’s never tried to muscle in on the publishing… 

For Hardware, Billy assembled much of the same crew from the last record. He produced the record with Mike Fiorentino and Matt Sorum of GnR and the Cult fame, who also plays drums. I know rhythm guitarist Austin Hawks is also on this record too. Alas, long time ZZ Top engineer Joe Hardy who played bass on Gibbons’ previous two solo records passed away. While Perfectamundo was a Latin, percussive record and The Big Bad Blues was steeped in, yes, the blues – both records could perhaps be seen as genre exercise – Hardware is a straight up rock record. Well, as straight up as Billy F Gibbons is capable of. Gibbons put out a single last year, “Hot Rod” that could have been a bonus track on Eliminator, but it is not on this album. Hardware is the most “ZZ Top” sounding solo record Gibbons has done. 

Hardware is what you would expect in a Billy Gibbons record: lots of guitar, big riffs, bluesy solos, and sly (and sometimes not so sly) humor. Parts of this record remind me of Deguello. The first single was “West Coast Junkie” and it gives me a California vibe that pervades this entire record. It’s a surf rock tune punctuated by Billy doing his “Reverend Billy F Gibbons” schtick. The final track, a spoken word thing not unlike “Heaven Hell Or Houston,” also conjures a California, hot desert wind. You can feel dust on your skin… The first four or five tracks have a seriousness that Billy usually doesn’t evince. It almost starts to feel humorless, but that’s just because it’s missing Gibbons’ trademark humor which comes in later. The opener, “Lucky Card” reminds me of “Just Got Paid,” all funky blues rock. It may be my favorite. “She’s on Fire” is one of those, race to the finish line, fast, balls to the wall rocker. “More More More” has some of Gibbons’ most gravely vocals to date. “Shuffle Step & Slide” is just as advertised, a blues shuffle turned up to 10. It’s got a big, big riff. 

“Vagabond Man” is an affecting bluesy ballad, the guitar solo practically weeps. Make no mistake though, “Vagabond Man” is more ballad than blues. It’s not “Fool For Your Stockings.” “I Was A Highway” is a classic rock song with a chugging riff. It’s almost a sing along. I love the line, “You’d think I was a highway, the way she hit the road.” Gibbons is a deceptively clever songwriter and could always turn a phrase. The only track that really fell flat for me was “Hey Baby, Que Paso” which I think is a cover. “Spanish Fly” is a big riff rocker with almost metallic sounding drums and it is slightly plodding. The music – especially the guitars aren’t as loud as the usual ZZ Top or Gibbons record. They’re down in the mix and the vocals are up a little higher which also surprised me. 

Overall I really do like this record. Much like I said about Cheap Trick’s latest album, this is a solid, straight up rock record. It may not be Tres Hombres but its a damn fine guitar riff record. I’ll be honest, I probably liked The Big Bad Blues a little better but I’m an admitted blues fetishist. Everyone should check this album out. In 2021 its just nice to hear some great, guitar rock. 

Cheers!